The media is full of it. Everywhere you see that people are told to love themselves; put themselves first; look out for “number one.” Such a notion is at the very least misleading, if not complete nonsense, and it is definitely dangerous.
A concern for oneself is built into our genes. Self-preservation has developed through biological evolution into a very strong instinct. Therefore, we don’t need to be told to love ourself. It comes naturally. But biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest. That makes for a very unfriendly world to live in.
The cultures of humanity oppose these strong instincts to allow the weak to survive as well, allowing the world to become a more friendly place to live in. Cultures accomplish it by instilling a concern for others.
The ancient biblical principles states “love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.” It represents a balance between the natural love all people have for themselves and the concern that should be extended to all other people they come in contact with.
This balance is important. It makes room for things like self-respect and self-confidence without which the balance would not be maintained. But it shows that such forms of self-concern should not exceed the level of concern for others.
A balanced level of competition with others is good and healthy, but when competition is driven too far it becomes destructive. In fact, it does not only harm others, but can start to be harmful to oneself.
So, don’t listen to all these calls for “learning to love yourself,” unless such messages are associated with self-development in balance with a healthy concern for others. A world full of selfish people is a very unfriendly world to live in, akin to the world in which the principles of the survival of the fittest rule, as they did during our biological evolution. In contrast, the foundation of a civilized world is the concern for others in balance with the concern for oneself.
What does it mean to be civilized? And why is it important?
One would think that people generally understand the idea of civilized behavior. However the day-to-day interaction with people in general shows that this is not the case. At least, if they understand it, they do not follow it. Perhaps the lack of civility is something that has developed in recent times. Perhaps it has always been that way.
I have probably talked about it several times, but I will probably talk about it over and over again, because I think it is important. So, let me explain what it is and why I think it is important.
The notion of civilized behavior is something that emerged in the early evolution of cultures. It was (and still is) a requirement for people to live together. People need to get along with one another in such circumstances. The idea is that if everybody accommodates each other then each person will experience a positive environment. On the other hand, if you treat everybody around you like an enemy, then you end up having lots of enemies. People with lots of enemies tend to have very difficult lives.
The idea of civilized behavior has far-reaching consequences. When people work together, they achieve much more then what an individual can achieve. Therefore, when we see the great works of people from the past then we see the evidence of civilized behavior. In fact, these achievements are so closely associated with civilized behavior that it is often recognized as civilization itself. In a TV series called “Civilisation” Kenneth Clark said that while it may be difficult to define civilization, it can easily be recognized in the artifacts left behind by a culture. While the collection of artifacts of a civilized society gives evidence of the level of civilization of their culture, it does not in my view represent civilization itself. Fundamentally, civilization is the way people behave toward one another within the culture.
Why is it important? It is one thing to say that civilized behavior can lead to cooperation among people and therefore lead to great works of art. But how cares about great works of art? It that what it is about? No. That is only an indication of civilization, a symptom. Of more importance are those things that are not primarily done for the sake of fame and glory. One such mundane product of cooperation among people is the establishment of infrastructure. In ancient cities, one can find evidence of water distribution systems, markets, schools, etc. all of which required some form of cooperation. These cultures also need to develop some form government and legal systems, together with all the other cultural structures necessary for the organizational aspects of a large number of people living together.
Well, today these cultural structures are all in place in all the nations of the world. If these structures are evidence of civilization, then clearly there is nothing to be worried about. Why should we then be concerned about the civilized behavior of people? The problem lies with the complacency. It seems to be taken for granted. While most countries seem to be able to maintain their level of civilization to an adequate level so that basic infrastructure can be maintained, there are countries where the level of civilization has deteriorated to such an extent that the infrastructure is starting to deteriorate. Many of these cases are so-called “developing” countries. However, even in developed countries signs of the deterioration of the level of civilization is starting to emerge. These signs include the rising level of crime and violence among the citizens of such countries. These manifestations of uncivilized behavior can be traced back to the fundamental notions of how people should behave toward one another. If left unaddressed, this rising uncivilized behavior will eventually lead to the fall the civilization.
So, our technology today causes ideas to be spread too fast to be properly tested. Is that really so bad? Perhaps the spreading of false information causes people to make bad decisions, such as whether or not one should get vaccinated during a pandemic or which president to vote for. But does that really threaten the survival of humanity? We seemed to be getting through this pandemic and although a large number of people died, it is still a tiny fraction of the total human population. Even bad presidents are eventually voted out of office. Although the next president has a lot of things that needs fixing, humanity still goes on.
So, what is really the issue with us losing the cultural mechanism? Granted. It may not be that humanity as a whole would become extinct as a result of the loss of the cultural mechanism, but there are some very seriously unpleasant states of existence before we get to extinction.
Perhaps the most important thing that is being maintained by the cultural mechanism is civilization. What do I mean by the term civilization? Basically, it is ability to live and work together with other people. Often civilization is seen as all the accomplishments such as art works of scientific achievements. However, these accomplishment are merely the symptoms of civilization. These accomplishments would not have been possible if people did not cooperate to achieve them. A single person could not have built the rocket with the capsule to land on the moon. The bigger the achievement, the larger the number of people that needed to be involved. It implies that all these people had to work together. That is only possible thanks to their level of civilization.
People are different. They have different views and convictions. If these people want to work together, they have to tolerate one another’s views, even if those views are very different. In a culture, the views and ideas may to a large extent be correlated. However, as the population of a culture increases the diversity in ideas will also increase. Therefore, the people in that culture can only maintain their cooperation if their level of civilization – the extent to which they can tolerate different views – also increases.
So, what happens when people do not tolerate different views anymore? Does it not simply mean that they cannot work together to achieve those accomplishments anymore? Yes, that is one inevitable consequence, but there are several much more severe things that can happen. The break down of civilization effectively implies a fragmentation of the culture into several lesser subcultures. It may sound like a scenario for civil war, but there are many other ways that the fragmentation can manifest. The fragmentation may happen along class separation lines. The lower classes would them reorganize themselves into gangs, living by stealing their resources. If the government of the day can muster enough cooperation to keep these gangs in check, some form of normality can be maintain. On the other hand, if the fragmentation implies that such cooperation cannot be maintained, the gangs would become ever more powerful. The gang leaders would eventually emerge as warlords. The point where these warlords become more powerful than the government would indicate the stage where the civilization has effectively fallen.
OK so that is bad. When civilizations fall, life as we know it changes drastically. It would generally mean that life expectancy decreases. The human population would dwindle. Although it does not necessarily imply that humanity becomes extinct, it is a close second.
But why would the fast spreading of information lead to such an apocalyptic state of affairs? The reason is that there is a concomitant breakdown in cooperation. Why this is happening, I don’t know, but there is a clear increase in animosity observable in social media. Somehow, the fast spreading of information puts pressure on basic civilization. In some parts of the world there is also an observable increase in criminal activity. These observations are all pointing to an imminent fall of civilization.
It is now just over a week since we entered lockdown. The statistics of the number of known COVID-19 cases seemed to have flattened off, but the authorities warn that there may be many more people that are infected that we don’t know about yet.
… don’t panic, don’t panic …
So, here we are going about our business in as far as one can go about one’s business sitting at home. Of course we need to stay positive. This is especially important for those of us living alone. As a result, I find myself thinking about the situation, observing how things develop and trying to think what it will lead to. I came to the conclusion that the world will probably never be the same again. Even assuming we get through this (and I guess one must hold onto the conviction that we will get through it), there are certain things that (I think) will change forever.
Perhaps you’ve already heard that one of the effects of lockdown is that more people will start to work from home. Video conferencing will become more prevalent. So will online file-sharing facilities and all that kind of stuff. (Let’s just hope the internet keeps on working.) However, I think there is another consequence that has been largely ignored. It is something I call the collective impetus.
So, what is this collective impetus? A long long time ago there was this TV series called Star Trek. It actually spawned several different series. One of the iconic antagonists that appeared in many of these series, but especially in Star Trek Voyager is the Borg, a cybernetic hive mind that called itself the Collective. It would inform its victims: “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
Some time ago I started to see a resemblance between the Collective (the Borg) and those people that are constantly on their cellphones. It occurred to me that the obsession of these people to be in contact with others (so much so that they even do that while driving a car) effectively means that they are gradually becoming part of a collective hive mind.
Enter lockdown. Now, what little face-to-face interaction people had is drastically reduced. As a result, more people are forced to keep contact with one another via cellphones. Hence the collective impetus. The society that will emerge after the lockdown may look significantly more like a collective than before the lockdown.
One can even imagine that cellphones will eventually start to look like the devices on the heads of people in the Borg. Perhaps this is the next phase in the evolution of the universe. Perhaps people will lose their individuality and the whole collective hive mind will start to act like a single organism. What about those of us that refuse to become part of this collective?
It barely allows thinking about — a world in the grips of a decease. I’ve developed an addiction for the statistical information given on wikipedia on the progress of COVID-19 infections. Looking at those exponentially growing curves, one does not know whether one should ran around screaming or hiding underneath the bed. The positive thing is that China has more or less gotten through this thing. Some other countries like South Korea also seems to have things under control. However, most countries, including highly advanced countries like the USA, simply don’t have it under control yet. Before this pandemic, one might have wondered whether one should start learning Chinese. Don’t bother. After this pandemic, everybody that got through this will already be speaking Chinese. … Just joking.
… don’t panic, don’t panic …
Actually there are some silver linings. The air pollution has dropped significantly. So earth is getting a break. Perhaps this is earth’s way for trying to shed some other decease it picked up called humanity. I can already tell you, it is not going to work. In fact, it probably won’t even make a dent in the overpopulation of this planet. To do that, the number of fatalities would have to be within an order of magnitude of the entire population of the world.
There is another aspect that may be much more severe. The socio-economic impact of this decease is going to be quite severe. The worst case scenario is a complete break-down of civilization. Not long ago Elon Musk has given a grim warning about the possibility of the fall of civilization. The problem is that such a process is so slow that you don’t see that it is happening. So, I’ve asked myself, how would one know that civilization is in the process of falling? The two things I identified were: when the airplanes are not flying anymore and when the internet does not work anymore, it signals the fall of civilization. Well, we now have the situation where the airplanes stopped flying. Hopefully we’ll get through this thing and then they’ll fly again. Or will they? The internet is still working. Will it stop working at some point because people cannot maintain it any more due to the decease? That would be very bad.
… don’t panic, don’t panic …
Well, let’s assume we are going to get through this thing without all these bad things happening. But, I don’t see us getting through this thing without some lingering effect. Let’s just hope that lingering effect is going be a positive effect. Perhaps it will teach us to be more careful with this world. Perhaps we’ll also appreciate each other more, care for those that need more care, be less self-centered and less obsessed with material wealth.